Chapter 1: Your Cheat Sheet to the Qatar GP

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Just in case you’ve been hiding under a rock this week, the 2011 MotoGP Championship is about to kick off today. Asphalt & Rubber has made the trek out to the Middle East, coming to you straight from the Losail International Circuit located just outside of Doha, Qatar. The weather has been favorable here in Qatar, with the heat down during the day, the skies clear but at times hazy, and the humidity staying down during the evening sessions. Hosting a two-day testing session before the Qatar GP, the riders have been here in Doha for almost 10 days now.

While you enjoy the return of MotoGP racing action to your online feeds and television screens, we’ve put together a cheat sheet to the Qatar GP to fill you in with the off-season happenings, as well as what’s been going on in the paddock while we’ve been here at Losail. Hold on race fans, prototype motorcycle racing is coming at you very, very, very soon.

The Untouchable Factory Hondas:
The big story the entire pre-season is just how fast the Hondas have been in testing. Finishing Malaysia with a 1-2-3 top finish, Repsol Honda continued its dominance at Qatar with Stoner and Pedrosa again eclipsing the field with their scorching times. Andrea Dovizioso has been in the mix as well, along with the now “Factory” Hondas of Marco Simoncelli and Hiroshi Aoyama.

With virtually all the riders acknowledging that the Hondas are on a whole new level, the focus in the media has been on the Honda RC212V’s new quick-shifting gearbox. The feedback from the Honda riders is that the new gearbox (many speculate is the Xtrac Instanaous Gearchange System that we first published about two months ago) allows for more grip while shifting when the bike is leaned over, and is overall a much smoother operating assembly. The growing consensus in the MotoGP paddock is that the new Honda gearbox is good for about two to three tenths of a second per lap at Losail.

David Emmett’s analysis on MotoMatters, which looked at the audible differences of the different MotoGP bikes shifting, seems to support this conclusion, with the Honda gearbox showing a 19ms & 34ms advantage over the Yamaha and Ducati race bikes respectively — the Honda shifts coming in a lightning quick 8ms of time. Counting the shifting points at Losail seems to suggest a 0.2 second time advantage in shifting alone, with intangible benefits like increased rideability and grip adding to the Honda’s benefits.

Whatever the case may be, whether it be alien status or magical gearboxes, Repsol Honda riders Casey Stoner and Dani Pedrosa have been ridiculously quick all off-season, and during the sessions here in Qatar. We’re expecting a battle for the top step on the podium from the duo, assuming Stoner’s bad luck at the Losail circuit doesn’t rear its ugly head again.

Yamaha Remains Outside of the Spotlight:
Yamaha’s package for the 2011 season is good, no one can take that from them. The only problem is that the Honda package is great. Both the factory riders at Yamaha have done well in Qatar, but the YZR-M1 is down on power compared to the RC212V, and has proven to be less stable during cornering. Everyone in the paddock has been impressed with the progress of Ben Spies, who is now a factory rider on the sponsorless Yamaha squad, and in many sessions Spies has been faster than his teammate reigning MotoGP World Champion Jorge Lorenzo.

Lorezno had some issues in Qatar, with his high corner-entry speed riding style getting thrown for a loop by the windy conditions in Qatar. When the winds have been down, Lorenzo has put in great times, but when the wind reared its head earlier in the week, the Spaniard struggled. Able to qualify third, even Lorenzo seemed resigned to watch the battle for first from a distance. The hope is that Yamaha will bring new revisions to the YZR-M1 later in the season that will allow the team to compete with the Repsol Hondas.

In that vein, reports have come out that Yamaha has its own quick-shift transmission under development, and the company continues to work on chassis and motor improvements. Whether they will be able to bring susbstantial enough improvements to the YZR-M1 in time to compete with the Hondas remains to be seen, but both Spies and Lorenzo seem ready and well prepared to ride at the front when they have the package that allows them to do so.

Like the Hondas, Yamaha’s satellite team has done quite well for itself. Monster Yamaha Tech 3 has veteran Colin Edwards and rookie Cal Crutchlow in its seats for the 2011 season. Edwards seems to have found a new pace in his work on the track, mixing it up in the Top 5 at times on the testing sessions. Often qualifying well and fading on race day, we’ll have to hope the reverse is true this weekend, and keep an eye on the American as he starts from the 10th position.

Cal Crutchlow has had both moments of brilliance and strugle, as the Brit was the 12th fastest in testing at Qatar, but managed an 8th place grid spot for the Qatar GP. The Losail circuit has not been a kind mistress for the satellite rider, as Crutchlow lost the top part of his left pinky finger on Monday night’s testing session. After the incident Cal wanted to get back out on the track, but cooler heads prevailed, and talked him out of the idea. Clinica Mobile was able to bandage Crutchlow’s finger so he could ride with a conventional glove on Thursday night’s Free Practice 1, while Spidi rushed out a special glove that would allow for a more traditional bandage.

The “Also Ran” Ducatis
The 2011 season has not been kind to Ducati, as Ducati Corse has clearly been struggling with the Desmosedici GP11, and those struggles have been shown in the time sheets of Valentino Rossi and Nicky Hayden. As one journalist pointed out, perhaps the issues of the Desmosedici did not solely exist in the mind of Casey Stoner, who battled the bike the first half of the 2010 season as well. While part of Rossi’s progress has been attributed to his shoulder (the Italian estimates it accounts for half second deficit), American Nicky Hayden has no such excuse, and has been visibly frustrated with the situation in his press debriefs in the latter part of this week. Always with a positive attitude, Hayden will try and make the best of his situation, but starting from the 13th spot on a 16 bike grid is not where the factory rider expected to be on Sunday.

For Valentino Rossi, things have been equally bleak, but the Italian has made more out of his bad fortune than his teammate. Starting 9th, Rossi thinks if he gets a clear start he could contend for a Top 5 finish. The factor everyone is curious to watch is how Rossi’s shoulder handles the race distance, as it seems to fade after 15 laps or so. Rossi reports the issue isn’t about pain, but resistance, and the Italian is still working on getting his shoulder to the strength and range it had before his crash last season.

Perhaps the only man getting along with the Ducati right now is Randy de Puniet, Asphalt & Rubber‘s Patron Saint has a bold riding style that seems to mesh well with the Ducati’s characteristics. In many sessions De Puniet has been the top Ducati, or mixing it up with the factory riders on an equal footing, and putting down very consistent lap times. De Puniet’s teammate Loris Capirossi has been a virtual non-story throughout the pre-season, unlike Aspar rider Hector Barbera.

Barbera has been impressive on the time sheets, but the on-track view tells a different story. In our time shooting photos and walking the circuit, we’ve seen few true laps from Barbera, as he’s often trolling the corners waiting for a tow from a faster rider. Consistently setting the fastest speed down the front-straight (with another rider firmly in front of him), Barbera’s antics have earned him criticism from other riders (one directly called him a “wanker”), and journalists alike (the label trailer trash has been offered by one journo). Needless to say, no one is taking his second row starting position seriously in the paddock.

Suzuki’s Non-Start to the 2011 Season:
If you’re not Italian, the biggest story coming out of Qatar is Alvaro Bautista’s injury during Free Practice 3. The Spaniard broke his femur during a high-speed high-side crash, leaving the Rizla Suzuki team riderless for the first GP round. While many options were explored, no Moto2 riders could be lifted from their teams, and Anglo-American John Hopkins was too far away, back in San Diego, to immediately fill-in on such short notice. As such, Suzuki will sit out the Qatar GP, picking up in Jerez with Hopper on the GSV-R.

This news is fairly tragic for Rizla Suzuki, who has been posting improvements in testing, and might have made a good showing come race day at Losail. The writing was on the wall though, as Bautista escaped one high-speed crash earlier in the week at Qatar, however that time staying unscathed. Bautista at the earliest could be back at Le Mans, but it will depend on how his now pinned femur heals.

The Rest of the MotoGP Field – A Tail of Two Riders:
Our recapitulation leaves us with two more riders to discuss: Toni Elias & Karel Abraham. Pre-testing chatter suggested neither rider would be a factor in the MotoGP Championship. Toni Elias has certainly lived up to this criticism, as the Spaniard has been the slowest in pre-season testing — three seconds off the pace here in Qatar. Elias qualified 3.855 seconds off Stoner’s time, and while a talented rider in Moto2, is showing many why he ended up in that series last year. Perhaps as he adapts to the Bridgestone tires and the LCR Honda, he’ll improve his position in the paddock, but at Losail he’ll be our backmarker.

Contrast those statements with Karel Abraham. The “Daddy Bought Me a MotoGP Ride” rider has effectively shut the mouths of his critics. Certainly not a front-runner, the Czech rider has found himself mid-pack during moments with his lap times, and on the track is looking very smooth and consistent. At only 21 years of age, Abraham could develop into a good MotoGP rider, and considering he is effectively using a hand-me-down Desmosedici (the only bike on the grid with the now defunct winglets), he has proven himself quite well. Starting from 15th doesn’t do the young rider justice for his work these past days, and he could find himself in a good middle-pack scrum come race day.

Other Headlines from Qatar:
Last night the Losail circuit renamed its grandstand in honor of Shoya Tomizawa, and the fallen Japanese rider will be honored with a minute of silence before today’s race. This touching tribute was planned long in advance of the Qatar GP, but considering the events unfolding in Japan right now, there’s an even larger weight and relevance to them here in Doha. While it’s been many months since his tragic crash at Misano, it’s clear there are still some wounds healing here in MotoGP over the event.

Photo: © 2011 Jensen Beeler / Asphalt & Rubber – Creative Commons – Attribution 3.0